Dispatch 4, eating my way through San Sebastian

OK, first off, I’ll apologize if anyone is getting tired of my constant talking (yeah, you all thought you could get rid of me for a few weeks–fat chance!), but I’m kind of getting into this travel journal thing.

So, since I’ve gotten to San Sebastian I’ve done very little other than eat, and walk to places to eat, and drink, and walk to places to drink. Today, I drove somewhere to eat.

The amazing thing, though, is that my clothes still fit. Let’s hope this keeps up, but with the amount of food I’ve put away in the last four days (not to mention sidra, tzakolis–literally ยจ”green wine” a local product not unlike a light, fruity prosecco) I should be looking like a Macy’s Day Parade balloon. But my jeans actually seem a little loose. It would appear to be some weird perversion of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where I eat plenty of loaves and fishes, and yet there is no more of me than before. Very odd.


So anyway, today I drove thirty minutes out of San Sebastian to eat at a place called Casa Julian in a small town named Tolosa. This was thanks to my brother and his friend (thanks Terry) because I would never have known about this little hole in the wall in a nondescript little town nowhere near anything I wanted to see. And I considered not going because, well, frankly because I was afraid of abject failure trying to get the car up the steep ramp in the parking garage here. But I decided to be brave, and anyway, I also wanted to go to Hondarribia, a little town on the coast right at the French border that is supposed to be really lovely.

Well, I am so glad I braved the whole thing. I got to Tolosa around 11.30, but most restaurants don’t open until 13.30 for lunch (like France, they work on military time over here), so I had some time to kill, and decided I would check out the town. Well, Saturdays it would appear that Tolosa is a big old farmers’ market. I mean, everything that could remotely be considered a square, a plaza, or just a really wide sidewalk is filled with people selling–well, anything you can eat or drink. There was a guy selling wine in those big plastic water cooler containers (you know, the ones you turn upside down), 4 euros for 5 liters. Unfortunately there was no way it was going to make it into my carryon, otherwise, you know I would have bought some. And it was actually pretty decent.

Well, I bought a bag of shelled fava beans from an old lady, who spoke some French (this close to the border, most people speak French, which is another story, one I’ll get to eventually) and who convinced me to buy some of the honey that her husband makes. She’s afraid of the bees. So, the thing is, which fresh spring favas you need cheese. Traditionally, at least among Italians, it’s a young pecorino, or sheep cheese. So I told her I wanted cheese to go with it, and she said that was a great idea and took me to meet her friend who makes cheeses. I bought two. One a very light sheep cheese, very soft and fresh and almost like what fresh mozzarella would be if it were made with sheep milk. The other is a goat cheese, a little firmer and more aged, very complex and tasty. For good measure, I decided I should also buy some sausage, because I was seeing a picnic come of all this, and so she took me to meet the sausage maker at his stand. He’s a cousin of hers, apparently, and she told me she liked this one in particular that’s like a soft salami with a lot of hot paprika in it. So that was cool. If only I could bring this stuff back to the states with me. But it will do for road food over the next few days.

Anyway, time to eat. I find Casa Julian, which you enter through the storeroom. And then you basically eat in the kitchen, because there isn’t really a kitchen. Just a fireplace in the dining room with a wood fire and a grill rack, where Julian cooks the steaks (chulettas). There is only one cut, and you don’t get to choose how you want it done. Fortunately, Julian seems to know that not unlike putting fancy French sauces on fresh, quality ingredients, it’s an unpardonable food crime to overcook a really good steak. So he takes your order, which basically consists of giving your assent to him making your steak and deciding if you want a salad and what to drink. There are roasted piquillo peppers listed on the menu, for an additional price, but Julian insists you have them, so it’s sort of moot. “Is not optional, the peppers” he said. So you “order” and he goes and cuts your piece of meat, and brings it into the dining room and throws it on the grill rack, and then takes a big handful of coarse salt, the only seasoning, and covers it with that. He throws a bunch of peppers on the fire too.

When the peppers are ready, he peels them, douses them with a bit of olive oil, and brings them to your table. When the steak is ready, he wipes off the salt, and carries it across the dining room table on one of those long fork things for grilling, the name of which is escaping me at the moment, and plops it on your plate. You take a bit of pepper, which is good and hot and a little spicy and smoky tasting, with each bite of steak. It was heavenly. Hey, if you’re only going to do one thing, do it really well. You also get a loaf of bread, which is good. Crusty outside, moist and doughy, with a weird hint of corn flake taste to it, but with the steak and pepper drippings, it was outstanding.

And I had wine. Only a half bottle because I was driving. But up there with overcooking steaks and drowning good food in rich French sauces, eating a good steak without red wine is another food crime I will never commit.

But I did learn a valuable lesson. Susan once told me that there was a window between half a bottle and 3/4 of one in which you are at your best driving a stick shift. And by God she was right. I managed to unparallel park (or is that parallel unpark?), do a K-turn, drive through town, get onto the highway, go through San Sebastian, get back on the highway, drive into Hondarribia, and parallel park again, all without stalling, or stripping the gears, or even jerking the car at all. So, I guess the lesson to be learned here is that so long as I stay just shy of tipsy, I can drive! Yeah, I rock in minor ways.

Hondarribia is so pretty. I took lots of pictures. I want to live there. It’s on the ocean. It’s dramatic. Has a nice beach and jetties where people fish for dorado. A view of France and the mountains. And cliffs. And the town itself is really pretty.

So I spent a few hours walking along the beach and such, and then decided rather than getting bck on the highway, to take the beach road back toward San Sebastian, which rises higher and higher onto these cliffs overlooking the ocean. I stopped in a few places and took pictures, and at one, pulled off to the side and had my little snack of some of the favas and cheese, and just took in the quiet and prettiness. Today was a good day.

Yesterday was a good eating day. I went to Arzak, which is considered the top restaurant in Spain (well, I guess it’s tied with El Bulli in the south, but I won’t have time to get there), and it was amazing. I told the waitress I couldn’t decide between the lamb and the calamari steak (which was grilled and dusted with orange zest and cocoa powder–lord almight!) and she said I could have a half portion of each. Then she recommend I do the same with the appetizers and desserts.

Ok, so here is where it all gets obscene. Except that at least I had a three kilometer walk each way to get to and from the restaurant to work off some of this food. And I ordered a bottle of one of my favorite wines, a Marques de Murrietta Reserva, because, for one thing, this was a bottle that in the states would be much more expensive in a restaurant (not 18 euros for sure!) and because when you’re going to have food that good, you really do need good wine to go with it, right?

So, they brought out five ameuses geules. Oh yeah. The first came on a toothpick and they handed it to me. It was a pineapple with a shrimp ceviche on top. Then there was a salmon tarte with red onion and good vinegar on a piece of potato. A tiny taro cake with a piece of seared foie gras and a black olive puree topped with a little bit of pink grapefruit. A pickled herring wrapped around a strawberry (and trust me, it was good) and a tiny cup of an onion soup, pureed, with an idiazabal cheese crisp on top.

Then they brought appetizer one. A crayfish salad in rioja and soy viniagrette on blue potatoes with watercress. That was really good, but hte next was heavenly. Little triangles of foie gras, yogurt and canteloupe puree wrapped in crepes. Sweet Jesus! The flavor was unimaginably good. Just truly, truly outstanding.

Then the calamari steak, which was actually weirdly constructed into something that kind of looks like a house that Rem Koolhaas designed in the south of france. There was a tiny bit of a savory orange marmalade on the side, but the cocoa powder and orange zest on the calarmari where incredible.

Next, the lamb, grilled in a curry powder and idiazabal cheese crust. Easily the best lamb I’ve ever tasted. And the wine was perfect with all of these things.

Dessert the first was a “hamburger” of chocolate ganache between two crispy buns of really good puff pastry. The second, much better than the first, was an apple and black olive tarte tatin. Wow! And then they brought out mango gelato, in a tiny cup, just a taste, a blast of mango creamy coldness.

So that was my meal, and it was truly outstanding. Though I do have to say that for pure enjoyment, today’s steak and the kokotxa from the other day (which turns out to be salt cod throats) top the list for best meals. But I have had quite a few really good fried sardines here too.

Good thing I’m leaving town tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten enough for a month.

Love to all. Can’t wait to see you Thursday!